Policing, a Delhi election issue

As the capital goes to polls, the police’s role in the violent incidents at Jamia and JNU needs scrutiny

Updated - January 21, 2020 11:35 am IST

Published - January 21, 2020 12:05 am IST

A riot police officer fires tear gas towards demonstrators during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Seelampur area of Delhi on December 17, 2019.

A riot police officer fires tear gas towards demonstrators during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Seelampur area of Delhi on December 17, 2019.

As political parties gear up for Assembly elections in New Delhi, they must accept that a central issue is that of violence in the city and the role of the police in relation to it. This may seem an odd suggestion as the problems faced by Delhi's people are many and diverse. For instance, as the capital of a country that seeks to take its rightful place in world affairs, it is a setback to have diplomats speak of the toxic air as a discouragement to being posted there. In any case, the threat to life of its citizens posed by pollution is so great that privileging the role of the police as an election issue may appear quixotic. Two recent events in the city suggest otherwise.

In December the students of Jamia MiIlia Islamia publicly protested against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). This was met with an unusual response from the police. The media reported eyewitness accounts of police entering the university’s library and bludgeoning students. Not even the arson that took place in Delhi at the time could have justified the indiscriminate violence against members of a university going about their business.

Complicity by inaction

Within three weeks, there took place another act of violence against students in a university, though not by the police. Masked hoodlums entered the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)’s campus and attacked students and staff in a targeted way. The pattern of the attacks suggested strongly that it was carried out by right-wing forces opposed to left-wing politics at JNU.

The Delhi police, we are told, stood by outside the gates of the campus while a club-wielding mob prowled about the campus for several hours. If the University’s extensive security apparatus was unable to quell the violence, it ought to have called in the police. There is an allegation that the police was complicit in the attack. Partisan conduct by the police in India is by no means confined to the Delhi police, nor are their attacks on students of recent origin. However, while in the mob attacks on Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, the police had allegedly only been complicit in the violence, in the protests following the CAA they may have taken the law into their own hands. Thus, from the pressure exerted on students and faculty of the IIM-Ahmedabad to not protest on their campus to entering a hospital treating those injured by gunfire in Mangaluru, everything points to predetermined police action in turning on the opponents of the regime.

However, it is in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) that the role of the police is the most disturbing. The death toll from police firing is over 20. Following this, FIRs were registered against persons for damage to public property. Destruction may well have happened. However, those implicated have publicly denied that they have had anything to do with the protests. Ironically, the list of people against whom FIRs were filed includes a retired policeman and a rickshaw-puller. Gujarat, Karnataka and U.P. have Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments.

In Delhi, the police are not answerable to the State government but to the Union Home Ministry, also currently under the BJP. Nevertheless, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government has a responsibility to investigate the violence at Jamia and JNU as it took place under its watch. The BJP and the AAP are also the main protagonists in the upcoming elections.

Events that take place in Delhi resonate across the country disproportionately. So, the agenda in the State’s elections may be expected to make an impression elsewhere in India. With two instances of staged violence in close succession, the role of the police in them needs scrutiny. We are a democracy, and elections are an appraisal of how we are governed.

Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor, Ashoka University and Senior Fellow, IIM Kozhikode

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